How to make a Portrait Quilt, Post #1

Julianne Walther

Posted on October 02 2019

How to make a Portrait Quilt, Post #1

Let's Make a Portrait Quilt!

I started a new portrait quilt today, and it seems like people are pretty interested in the process, so I'm going to be posting on this blog throughout the process, so you can see how it happens!  At the end of this blog post, you will see a few other photo quilts I've made in the past. I find them fun and rewarding, but VERY tedious and time consuming, so you've been warned!

Step1: Find a good photo

I love remembering my kids' baby days, so I really enjoy searching through our extensive database of photos for the perfect one. The photo you choose should be clear, with a background that is not important. It needs to have good contrast. Eyes and mouths are very hard to get "right" so you may want to use a photo without these elements for your first try.

This is an example of a good photo:

This is an example of a less-good photo:

Once you have your photo chosen, crop it to the shape you like using photo editing software. 

2. Posterize your photo

I use a website to posterize my photos for these types of projects. My favorite site is

Click HERE to be taken to the website above.

Just add your photo, then choose posterize. I tend to like 7-color outcomes, but you can play with the number of colors you get. The more colors you have, the more detailed your quilt will be, but it will be harder to create a quilt from it.

This is a 7-color outcome:

And here is a 3-color outcome of the same photo:

Once I have a posterized image I like, I download it and then print it out in color on regular copy paper.

3. Outline the Sections

Now, you begin the process of outlining each color blob. I like to use an Ultra Fine Point Sharpie Marker (and make sure that you've got your table underneath covered). Outline every single color change. In this quilt, even though there is color in the background, I plan to put it on a solid background, so I didn't outline those parts. He's holding a stuffed dog in this photo, and I didn't find it necessary to outline every bit of that, as it's not the most important part of the composition, and I can "wing it" when I get to that part.

4. Full-Size it!

Choose the size of your quilt. The larger the quilt, the larger the pieces. Some of those little blobs can be VERY small, so keep that in mind when choosing your quilt size. I measured a rod that's hanging in my house to determine the size I want this one to be (so it will fit the space I have planned for it). I decided on 30" square. Even so, some of the fabric pieces in this quilt will be 1/4" x 1/2" large!

Most full-service copy stores will have a plotter printer. If you take in your marked-up print-out, they will scan it and print it larger for you. The plotter at my shop can print up to 36" wide, so if you want it larger than that, you'd have to break up your original image into a few pieces and have a few different plotter prints made and then tape them together. Print in color - it costs more, but it makes everything easier.

5. Time to trace

Once you get your plotter print home, you'll want to trace all of those lines onto the back of the page. Everything is easier when using a light table or a light box (just search Amazon) - I love mine - it's great for everything appliqué. Tracing the lines to the back side will reverse the image, so your finished quilt will be in the same orientation as your original photo. It also gives you a clean canvas for tracing your pattern pieces later, and gives you a chance to number your blobs (next).

Plotter print, front side:

Plotter print, traced on the back side of the print:

6. Color by Number

Now it's time to assign numbers to the colors in your quilt. Even though I asked for 7 colors in my posterizing, I found about 15 colors in my print. I start with the lightest colors, which are usually the pieces that would be "on top". What I mean by this is if you were to reach into the photo and touch the subject, the parts you would touch first are "on top". In this case, it's the center of his forehead and the pinky side of his hand. I use the small printout and the larger plotter print to do this at the same time and assign numbers to every piece in the quilt.

Here is the close up of one eye on the quilt map:

7. Now, on to Fabric Picking

For this quilt, I am challenging myself to use "true" colors. Because of this, I also had the original photo printed at poster size onto photo paper. This makes it easier to audition fabrics and see the "true" color. Here, I'm auditioning two different colors for the eyes. The fabric on the right is actually the back side of a printed fabric, but I think it's gong to work well! Don't go with white fabric for the whites of eyes. They aren't really white! Try to color match, not thinking about what it is that you're matching. You'll surprise yourself!

In other quilts I've made, I've gone with shades of a single color, as well as totally different color schemes. Make your quilt your own!


That's as far as I've gotten today, so stay tuned as I keep searching for all of the perfect fabrics for my quilt.

5/14/21 update: Life gets in the way, so this quilt is still in progress! Check back for an update this Fall. Thanks!

quilt in progress


A few of other photo quilts I've completed for inspiration:

- Julianne Walther

Owner, Cary Quilting Company


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